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Rohatsu Sesshin

According to the story, about 2,500 years ago, a young Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama, after unsuccessfully searching for the meaning of Life for many years and having exhausted all the methods he had learned, sat under the Bodhi tree determined to attain enlightenment.

After several days of intense meditation, he entered the night during which he was tested to the core by Mara, the personification of Death and Desire, that actually represents the dark side in each of us. Everything we keep in the shadows and try to hide from ourselves or others, what we deny and flee from, all our fears and yearnings, all our doubts - these are all our personal demons recruited into the army of the Mara.

On that crucial night, although each of these demons had tried to persuade him to give up his quest, Siddhartha did not falter and instead remained motionless. This persistence led him to insights into Mara's intentions and the nature of demons, what ultimately, helped him let go of the struggle and sink into the deepest silence within himself.

Just before dawn, upon seeing the Morning Star, he finally broke through the illusion of reality, awakening to the true nature of existence. The cry he uttered at that moment is the same cry that everyone utters upon sudden awakening even thousands of years after Buddha’s enlightenment: "How wonderful it is - I, the great Earth and all beings - all of us, naturally and simultaneously awakened."

With the Earth witnessing his Great Death, the one reborn, still sitting under the tree, was no longer a young prince agonizingly searching for the meaning of Life, but Buddha (the enlightened one) and Tathagata ("the one who has gone like this", "the one who has arrived like this"). The Great Death has washed away also his suffering (dukkha), the questions disappeared, and the answers crystallised into the Four Noble Truths: the truth about suffering, the truth about the cause of suffering, the truth about the end of suffering, and the truth about the path leading to the end of suffering.

The Buddha was overwhelmed by the intensity of the awakening experience, which is why he remained emersed in this new reality for several more weeks. According to the story, it was only after seven weeks that he decided to leave the Bodhi tree, in order to pass on the newfound knowledge to others.

Buddha's realization of the nature of existence, became not only the foundation of his teaching but also the basis on which Buddhism developed over the last 2,500 years. Therefore, is this event of great importance to Buddhist thought and is marked every year on the 8th day of the 12th lunar month. This anniversary is however celebrated not only in honour of Buddha, but also as a reminder that awakening is attainable.

In Zen monasteries, this day is usually marked as the last day of the week-long Rohatsu Sesshin. (Rohatsu literally means "the eighth day of the twelfth month" and is celebrated on December 8th according to the Gregorian calendar).

During this intense Sesshin, the Zazen practice is only interrupted for the most necessary needs (sleep and meals). The climax of the practice is reached on the last day, when one sits in Zazen through the night, until dawn on December 8th. The practice requires a complete surrender to silence and stillness, so that the fight against arising demons could be successful.

Amidst this silence, the story of the young prince Siddhartha and his journey to Buddhahood comes to life. Through our own experience, we travel back thousands of years just to realize that when the surface is merely scratched, the Buddha's story is not unlike the story of the average person in the world today. It is indeed a timeless story that also depicts awakening of those who lived before him and after him.

In fact, the search for answers, the longing for liberation, the challenges, and pitfalls during the search, but as well the inner potential that lifts us up when we fall and holds us steady when we walk the Path, have remained the same since the beginning of humanity.

Hence, our own journey is reflected in every passage of Siddhartha’s journey. Just as he left comfort to become the Buddha, also we must inevitably leave comfort in the end. And although we will not leave a castle or the role of heir to the throne, as it was the case with Siddhartha, our departure from worldly possessions will be equally profound. Like Buddha, we are also driven by the same deep desire to discover the meaning of Life, even if that means leaving family, friends, or social status. Like him, we keep searching for answers year after year until finally we manage to face inner demons and see the Light.

In other words, although Siddhartha's and our Book of Life appear to be different, if we listen carefully to what the silence whispers, we will find out that only the covers differ, but the messages captured between these covers are telling the same thing - they describe the same demons, ask the same questions, and give the same answers.

However, when the Morning Star will light up our sky is hard to predict. After all, everyone's night is as long as it needs to be.

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